Sir John Margetson, resourceful ambassador in Hanoi and speechwriter to George Brown – obituary

Telegraph Obituaries
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Sir John Margetson
Sir John Margetson

Sir John Margetson, who has died aged 93, was an accomplished diplomat who survived a spell as speechwriter to the mercurial Labour Foreign Secretary George Brown to become Britain’s ambassador in Hanoi, deputy head of mission at the United Nations, and finally ambassador to the Netherlands.

As Head of Chancery in Saigon from 1968 to 1970, during the Vietnam War, Margetson was less confident than his ambassador, Murray MacLehose, that the Communists would be defeated – particularly after seeing American troops at a showing ofM*A*S*H applaud an enlisted man’s assault on a US officer.

In 1978 he was sent as Ambassador to Hanoi, by then the capital of the unified Vietnam, a posting regarded in the FCO as the toughest in the world.

There, he alerted the Foreign Office to Vietnam’s imminent split with China – something it had considered unthinkable. His sources were non-aligned ambassadors, with whom the country’s rulers were more open – notably Egypt’s, with whom Margetson took up yoga classes.

The Vietnamese accepted Margetson, despite his having served in Saigon, because they hoped for British aid. But London cut this off when, at the end of 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia in support of the Khmers Rouges.

Margetson was called to the foreign ministry and told that Britain, China and America were making “slanderous charges” against Vietnam over its intervention. The Vietnamese followed up by refusing to let a British UN official take up the post of Chief Refugee Officer in Hanoi.

Margetson earned a reputation among FCO staff for getting things done. Arriving in Hanoi to find morale at rock bottom because of rat-infested accommodation, he arranged for Britain to buy two of the flats being built by Sweden for its own diplomats. His wife had to do the cooking at the Residence (a former brothel), after the cook was electrocuted and the Foreign Ministry refused a replacement.

He also oversaw the move to a new Residence in the Hague. The building vacated was in poor condition and impossible to keep secure; the IRA had assassinated a previous ambassador, Sir Richard Sykes, on its doorstep. Margetson found it “hell moving into a completely untried new building and getting it to work”.

John William Denys Margetson was born on October 9 1927, the younger son of the Very Rev WJ Margetson, provost of St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh, and the former Marion Jenoure.

He boarded at Blundell’s School under the reforming headmaster Neville Gorton. In his retirement Margetson wrote Gorty: Neville Gorton’s years at Blundell’s.

Addressing the UN , 1983
Addressing the UN , 1983

Margetson was a choral scholar at St John’s College, Cambridge, under the composer Herbert Howells, reading Anthropology and Archaeology. In mid-course he was commissioned into the Life Guards for National Service.

Sent to Palestine for the final months of the British mandate, he commanded scout cars escorting potash convoys to Jerusalem from the Dead Sea and patrolling the Jaffa road. Coming up from Jaffa one day, his car was ambushed by guerrillas and blown clean off the road.

Years later, an Israeli diplomat with whom he was talking turned out to have been the Haganah commander who ordered the attack. They became firm friends, despite the shock having caused Margetson to lose all his hair.

Completing his degree in 1951, Margetson joined the Colonial Service and was appointed a district officer in Tanganyika. He spent most of his time up-country, always with his clavichord – exactly a head-load for a porter – on which he played Bach outside his tent in the evenings.

For two years from 1956 he was secretary to the governor, Sir Edward (late Lord) Twining, whom he reckoned “the last great paternal governor of British imperialism.”

Julius Nyerere’s Tanganyika African National Union party was pressing for independence, but the Colonial Office wanted first to attract investment and create a multiracial state.

When the UN Trusteeship Council demanded independence, Margetson blamed a “blinkered American representative”. This gave Nyerere a platform at the UN, where the non-aligned countries treated him as a world figure.

With an early end to British rule inevitable, Margetson resigned from the Colonial Service in 1959 and joined the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, or MI6). David Cornwell (John le Carré) joined at the same time and became a friend. Margetson learnt the spy’s “tradecraft” – including running agents, using firearms and how to kill with a single blow.

Once on the strength, Margetson found Rudolf Hess’s long-forgotten trousers in a secret safe as MI6 moved its headquarters. He was posted to the Hague in 1962, boarding Soviet ships at Rotterdam at night to obtain photos of Russian port facilities. Two years on, he resigned from MI6 (as did Cornwell) and took a late-entry exam into the Diplomatic Service.

At the Foreign Office, he soon found himself writing George Brown’s speeches. Before making one, Brown would gather the relevant senior officials, with Margetson recording the discussion then crafting a draft.

However, the system broke down because Brown’s reputation for drunkenly humiliating his staff made such meetings hard to convene. So instead Brown huddled with Margetson and the permanent under-secretary, or just left the task to him.

George Brown (right, with Harold Wilson, the prime minister, 1965): he was a sort of genius, but Margetson locked up the sherry - Terry Disney/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
George Brown (right, with Harold Wilson, the prime minister, 1965): he was a sort of genius, but Margetson locked up the sherry - Terry Disney/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Once Brown, “a sort of genius, but impossible to work for”, rang him at 2 am asking for a speech on Vietnam for a Commons debate that evening. Margetson located a typist, found a senior official homeward bound from an embassy dinner to clear the text, and posted it through Brown’s letter box in Carlton House Terrace.

Another time, after Brown asked Margetson for alterations, the official helping him, noticing the Foreign Secretary was heading for the sherry cupboard, shot through and pocketed the key. “Sherry was George’s downfall,” Margetson recalled, “and there was a gigantic explosion from him. But he was sober, and the speech was a great success.”

When Brown resigned in 1968, Margetson was posted to Saigon where he ran the embassy and oversaw a large British medical team working at the city’s children’s hospital. Once a week, he briefed the British media, picking up information about what had transpired at America’s “five o’clock follies” [military press briefings].

Returning home in 1970, he spent a year on the FCO’s Indo-China desk, then was seconded to Burke Trend’s Cabinet secretariat, briefing the Prime Minister (Edward Heath, then briefly Wilson) on foreign affairs, and servicing the Cabinet and its defence and foreign policy committee. He found taking minutes difficult, as Sir Alec Douglas-Home, Heath’s foreign secretary, always had a ballpoint pen in his mouth which rendered him inaudible.

With the liberal Tory Home Office minister David Lane, Margeston co-ordinated the settlement in Britain of Asians with UK passports expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin. He also worked up with the future Conservative MP Michael Mates, then a colonel at the MoD, contingency plans for a major terrorist incident involving British subjects.

One scenario they planned for was the occupation of an embassy. Their work proved invaluable a decade later during the Iranian embassy siege.

Margetson
Margetson

In 1974 Margetson went to Brussels as Head of Chancery in Britain’s delegation to Nato. He helped draft the alliance’s brief for the Helsinki Conference, which would guarantee free movement of printed matter and ideas across the Iron Curtain.

Next, in 1978, came Hanoi, and in 1981 a quieter billet as senior civilian instructor at the Royal College of Defence Studies. Then, in 1983, he became No 2 to Sir John Thomson at the UN.

Margetson proposed to general secretary Perez de Cuellar a plan to end fighting in the Lebanon by using UN observers to monitor crossing points between the rival factions’ territory, and tried with Perez to break the deadlock over Cyprus created by the Turkish North declaring independence.

He also blocked the distribution of a UN teaching guide on decolonisation, drafted by communist diplomats, which condemned colonial rule without mentioning its benefits in health, education, and human rights.

Margetson also presided over the Trusteeship Council, by then responsible only for Micronesia, a former German colony administered by the United States. He oversaw its progress to independence as three separate countries, personally supervising two plebiscites.

His final posting, from 1984 to 1987, was to the Hague, where he concentrated on convincing the Dutch that Britain was a reliable member of the EEC. He hosted visits from Margaret Thatcher and senior ministers and kept Ruud Lubbers’s government on side as Britain orchestrated progress toward the single market.

Margetson retired in July 1988, and settled at Woodbridge, Suffolk. From then until 1994, when he suffered a brain haemorrhage, he chaired the Royal School of Church Music, the Yehudi Menuhin School and the Joint Committee of the Royal College of Music and the Royal Academy of Music.

A notable achievement was securing the reversal of the Gowrie Report’s recommendation to amalgamate the Royal College and the Royal Academy of Music to form a single conservatoire. The two flourish separately today.

He was appointed CMG in 1979, KCMG in 1986, and from 1992 to 2002 served as Gentleman Usher of the Blue Rod.

John Margetson married Miranda Coldstream, younger daughter of the painters Sir William Coldstream and Nancy Spender, in 1963. They had a son, Andrew, a film director, and a daughter, Clare, an editor on The Guardian.

Sir John Margetson, born October 9 1927, died October 17 2020